`Morphing' Karate Teens Provoke Parental Parry of Television Violence
How to keep out of harm's way has become a more public issue
TORONTO — EVERY weekday in 78 countries around the world, millions of children watch the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers save Earth by karate-kicking evil aliens into retreat.
Their heroics have made Power Rangers the top-rated children's show in North America. But that success means the show has become a prime target of an international backlash against violence in children's television.
Canada, New Zealand, and several Scandinavian countries have acted on public concerns about TV violence by banning the Power Rangers or censuring broadcasters who air the series. In Canada, the Power Rangers met their match in Joanne Grant, a Toronto working mother with two young sons. She wrote regulators and broadcasters in April complaining about the violence on Power Rangers.
``After watching this show for about two weeks, our seven-year-old son's teacher called to complain of his aggressive behavior,'' Ms. Grant wrote.
To her surprise, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) - recently set up by commercial broadcasters to regulate themselves - on Nov. 1 censured the Toronto-based CanWest Global System network for airing the show. The CBSC is requiring Global to air during prime time an admission that it has violated guidelines by ``depicting excessive violence.'' It was the first such action taken under guidelines adopted by commercial broadcasters this January at the urging of the federal government.
Immediately, YTV, a cable channel for children that was technically outside the CBSC's jurisdiction, yanked the program.
But Power Rangers can still be seen in much of Canada on US channels carried on Canadian cable systems. It is also still carried by the Global network, which says it will begin Nov. 21 to present a less violent Canadian version of the show developed in cooperation with the program's producer, Saban Entertainment of Los Angeles.
``We felt that there are so many positives to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that hadn't been addressed in light of the [CBSC] ruling,'' says Barry Stagg, a Saban spokesman.
Despite the CBSC's finding that 25 to 35 percent of the 18-minute show was fighting, Mr. Stagg says many ``pro-social values'' in the program pushed it to the top among kids' shows in the US and gained it an endorsement by Parents magazine.
The Power Rangers is not an animated cartoon show, but a cross between teen drama and cartoon in which five or six ordinary teens ``morph'' into super-beings with martial-arts skills.
Whether Global's de-fanged version of the Power Rangers will still satisfy karate-hungry four-year olds - or the CBSC - remains to be seen. If regulators are not satisfied, Canada's federal regulator - the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) - could withhold a broadcasting license to the Global network.
Meanwhile, the Power Rangers are taking hits all over. On Sept. 19, the New Zealand Broadcasting Authority took the Power Rangers off the air, citing the show's negative impact on young children.
Last month, the Scandinavian network TV-3 dropped the show after a five-year-old girl was beaten to death by three young playmates. The show has since been reinstated, and no link with the program has been proved.
IN the United States, efforts by children's TV advocates to rein in the show's violence have met with little success.
Before the recent national election, nine pieces of legislation were pending in Congress offering varying degrees of restrictions, codes, or ratings systems to protect children and restrict US broadcasters.
Peggy Charren, founder of the US child-advocacy group Action for Children's Television, says a lot of new legislation might not be needed if the 1990 Children's Television Act were more strongly enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. Under the act, the FCC will on Jan. 12 hear public comment on its proposal to tighten standards on children's television diet.
``We've had this huge outcry about TV violence,'' says Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Washington-based Center for Media Education. ``But in the middle of all that - and the posturing by industry - what you see coming on children's TV is a proliferation of all these action-based programs.''
Action shows that popped up in 1994, she says, include Battletech and Creepy Crawlers (both of them by Saban Entertainment); Gladiators 2000; Ironman; Mutant League; Monster Force; Skeleton Warriors; Super Human Samurai Syber Squad; and Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills.
Back in Canada, the Power Rangers controversy has spurred new activism among parents. ``Canadian parents are concerned,'' says Tom Perlmutter, executive director of the Toronto-based Alliance for Children and Television, an advocacy group promoting a better media environment for children. ``There's been a new kind of awareness of the impact of TV on children. Parents are realizing, `Hey, we have to make more decisions about what our children are watching.' ''